How many people do you see in this picture?
Most people would say, “one”.
But if you are going to succeed as an Alongsider, you should get used to seeing at least a hundred people in this picture. Parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, neighbors, siblings, cousins, bosses, and classmates are all the invisible forces that govern the life of this one person.
When Indians are born, they instantly become a lifetime member of a group of no less than 100 people. This network will be with them for their entire life. The community exists to provide stability, protection, and anything else they could ever need.
Out of work? Call your uncle’s company, and see if he can get you a job. Need admission to a school? Find a relative who knows a decision maker. Having trouble getting a passport? A guy you grew up with is now an IAS officer and can give you inside information.
Communities in India create an essential born-in asset to have in a nation where things are impossible to get done on your own.
However, groups come with a high level of obligation as well. When an Indian gets an invitation to a wedding from someone in the community, he/she must always go. When someone needs to call in a favor, they can’t say no. Once you are in the group, you are there to stay. You are always identified with that group and all of its quirks and reputations.
Many life decisions that North Americans see as individual are quite communal for Indians. What subject you will study in college, which college to go to, if your child is eating enough, what extracurricular activities to be involved in–the community group has a large say in all of these.
And of course, the question of marriage (or the more accurately named alliance) is a group decision for many families. Who someone marries, and particularly the kind of people/community they come from, is a very important and impactful decision that everyone wants to have a say in.
But those were the old days, people are changing now
It’s true that some social elements are turning more individualistic in Indian society. But this is still more of the exception than the rule.
The truth is that in a society like India, you really can’t function without a very tight group of people looking out for you. When you need something done, arranged, fixed, it is impossible to do on your own. Before too long, you will need these people. They are eager to help you because they know you will also be eager to help them.
So while things are changing slightly and families are becoming more nuclear and individual, this is a trend that will take several more decades to fully change, if it ever does.
You need a group
When I first lived in India, I joined a professional/service club in order to meet people. I enjoyed it at first, but after several months, the meetings were sometimes dull, and I questioned if it was still worth my time. For some reason, I felt like it was the right idea to keep going.
Two years after I joined, I found myself in a stressful situation where I needed some legal advice quickly. My North American mind would have panicked, jumped onto Google, searched for a lawyer, and started making random cold calls until someone who seemed legitimate answered.
But instead, I made one phone call to a member inside my club. Within an hour, I had a meeting set up with one of the best lawyers in the city who gave me some free counsel, and assured me I had nothing to worry about. I was shocked at how quickly the group circled around me, and helped me through what would have otherwise been a horrible situation.
On the flip side, I once got a call from a friend in a different social circle who was in a panic and needed me to do some work for her that she was under heavy pressure to complete (and for which she was being paid). Because she was someone I valued and was a part of my “group”, I knew my only option was to help her and not ask any questions or hesitate.
For the Alongsider
For most of us, the first interaction we have with an Indian family is individual. We meet a student, or a family, and we build a relationship with them.
However, what many of us don’t realize is that person/family is just the tip of a tentacle that is firmly attached to hundreds of other people.
What does this mean for an Alongsider to notice this?
Respect the community. Your first reaction to all of this shouldn’t be, “Well they are in America now, so this will give them a chance to be free from all of that and be their own self.” Many of us on this side of the world have the unhelpful habit of assuming that deep down inside everyone else is a little version of us just waiting to come out, if only it could.
Instead, our orientation should be to help them value their own community even more and talk about how blessed they are to have so many people who care deeply about them. There are great injustices that occur as a result of this community-obligation system, but our orientation should be towards respecting it first and admitting that we don’t understand most of the dynamics.
Ask about family often. It’s not uncommon to find that your Indian friend talks to parents or other family members every day on the phone. When you ask how their immediate family is doing, you are acknowledging all of their deep connections and showing that you see that they come from a community. You should express a desire to meet their family whenever you can.
Don’t push them to make a big decision without consulting family. This might include changing a college major, moving houses, or deciding on schooling options for kids. “What does your family think about this?” is a great way to show that you recognize there are reverberating implications to every decision they make. This doesn’t mean they must always go with the family decision, but it must be deeply considered and respected.
Give space for family. Due to the obligations that communities bring, people often are called away to provide help. Let’s say that you and a friend are planning a big event, but one week before, your friend says she needs to fly across the country because her cousin who lives in San Francisco is having a surgery and needs help with her kids. Your initial reaction may be to hesitate, giving a quizzical “Ok”. But when you realize how important community circles are, you will change your response to “Of course, you must go.” There’s no telling what kind of history there is with this relationship, and what kind of future help might be required as well. Anytime a family issue comes up, it’s ok to let it trump whatever you are in the middle of.
In individual societies like ours, it can be hard to understand all of these complex social relationships. But once you do, you may come to deeply appreciate them and seek to cultivate the best parts into your own family and community. Just remember that when you see one person, you are seeing just the face with a hundred lives and voices behind it.